Saturday, March 01, 2008


The Sunday Times really knows its target audience. Between Brooklyn writers and Orthodox rabbis, there's something for everyone. I'm more interested in the Israeli-marriage article, so let's begin there. Apparently even if your parents were married in the US by an Orthodox rabbi, you yourself might not be allowed to marry in Israel, since Israel's Orthodox rabbinate has a secret list of which American rabbis 'count' and the one who married your parents might not. Or, to put it more succinctly, Israel is not so much excluding non-Jews from full participation in its society as excluding all but the three people who fit some obscure definition of Jewish. Or, even for those who believe Israel should be a Jewish state, and that it's fine that Israel has a state religion, the way this actually plays out ends up excluding even those Jews who wish to take part. I knew that plenty of fully Jewish Israeli couples marry outside of Israel for this reason, but Gershom Geronberg's article really drives the point home. It's nice to know that if I wanted to marry in Israel, I'd have to embark upon a bigger research project than what will be needed for a dissertation. And since no one in my family's French, I could not kill two birds with one stone.*

But let's say this gets sorted out, and anyone who calls himself a Jew can have a Jewish wedding in Israel. Problem solved? It's worth going back a decade to look at this exchange between Zeev Sternhell and Arthur Hertzberg. Sternhell writes:

As an American citizen, Hertzberg probably considers these principles as self-evident truths and wants them to be strictly observed in his own country. But as a Jew, he needs a "Jewish state." For himself, Hertzberg wants a secular, pluralistic and individualistic society, but for me and the generations of Israelis to come, he requires some kind of a tribal ghetto.

I would not want to have to debate Sternhell. He puts in a few words the paradox of the American Jew who shudders at the thought of prayer in school in the US, but is willing to accept all sorts of official religion in the name of keeping Israel Jewish, which is, let's face it, a common enough contradictory pair of thoughts. (Guilty as charged). America and Israel provide two different responses to anti-Semitism, in particular its 20th century variant: Israel accepts the 'official' definition of a Jew, but embraces this as something positive, while America scraps official designations and allows you to be as Jewish as you feel like, whether this means a streimel or the occasional bagel and lox. Is there a coherent way to think one thing's good for one country and another for the other? One could point to the fact that America was founded as a state with no official religion, whereas Israel was not. One could also point to the fact that, at least as they are supposed to operate, both the US and Israel help Jews, some but not all of whom care to live in a majority-Jewish state, some but not all of whom wish to define their own identities on their own terms. Or one could admit that yes, Sternhell has a point.

*There's always the possibility that this article, the latest in the Magazine's series 'let's trash on Orthodox Judaism' is an exaggeration. But everything else I know about this issue, from reading about it and from friends, suggests it's pretty much right.

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